Throughout her life, Rabbi Shira Stutman admits she’s always been somewhat of “a Jewish community nerd.” That’s why serving as the keynote speaker at the second annual Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Symposium is so meaningful to her.
“It is such an honor to speak at this event,” said Rabbi Stutman, who is the senior rabbi at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. “Shoshana Cardin was someone who was larger than life to me and made it possible for women to be powerful leaders in the Jewish community. So to do this is a deep, deep honor. I think it will be a very meaningful evening.”
The Cardin Symposium, named in memory of the Baltimore-based international Jewish communal leader who passed away in 2018, will be held on Sept. 8 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
The virtual event will be presented by Na’aleh: the Hub for Leadership Learning, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
A Philadelphia native who grew up in the D.C. area and attended Rockville’s Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Rabbi Stutman was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Forward and a “Woman to Watch” by Jewish Women International.
Located in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood, Sixth & I is hailed as one of the nation’s most innovative Jewish centers of worship and programming. On its website (sixthandi.org/), Sixth & I describes itself as a “center for arts, entertainment and ideas, and a synagogue that reimagines how religion and community can enhance people’s every lives.”
A 2007 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Stutman serves as scholar-in-residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy Program of the Jewish Federation of North America. She also serves on the board of Jews United for Justice and the rabbinic cabinet of J Street.
Jmore recently spoke with Rabbi Stutman, who lives in the nation’s capital with her husband, Russell Shaw, and their three children.
Jmore: What do you plan to talk about at the symposium?
Rabbi Stutman: I will be speaking, of course, but I also want to bring different people together to have conversations. We’re all so siloed right now because of COVID, but we also have different opportunities to meet people that we would’ve never met before. So we need to have conversations about how we can harness the Jewish resilient spirit at this particular time.
Jews have never really had the luxury of despair. We’ve had to rise from the ashes over and over and over again. So we want to have conversations about Jewish moments of resilience and how we remain resilient. What is the Jewish approach about how we get through this?
Sixth & I is unique in that it’s a synagogue but also a venue for entertainment and lectures by authors and thought leaders. Can that be replicated at other congregations?
There are parts of it that would be difficult to replicate, like our book talks, because not as many [authors] come through Baltimore and other places. But other parts are replicable, such as the deep belief that Judaism can be relevant to the times we live in.
Sometimes, synagogue leaders forget that it’s our job to bring the Torah to the people, instead of having the people come to the Torah. Sometimes, synagogue leadership can become set in their ways. They can think they’re catering to the community, but really catering to themselves. Synagogues today have to decide who they want to serve — the people who always come to services or those who usually don’t come? It’s very hard to do both. But I do believe that people are still looking for different forms of religious and spiritual encounters.
Much of your focus at Sixth & I has been on developing boutique communities there. Why?
A lot of millennials that we work with are still learning what it means to be in an authentic community, so we work with them on what it means to be a religious community. We say, ‘You belong to a community where you might not like everyone who’s there, but that’s part of being a community.’
We’ve created smaller groups because we’re building up community muscles that our people don’t have yet. Some of these people may carry a lot of different identities, such as being Democrats or Jewish or Washingtonians. We try to lift up their identities and community, and we bring them in as a smaller, more intentional community. We have lots of different collectives, such as our LGBTQ+ community. They come to us and are with other people in their community.
How would you describe Sixth & I from a denominational perspective? Your services run the gamut between the movements.
It’s incredibly important to us to be post-denominational and have a range of different options for people. We like to say we’re ‘just Jewish,’ but there are many ways to practice Judaism. Some of us prefer to simply observe Judaism and not use the boxes.
Our services look somewhat similar and somewhat different, but we talk about Judaism that is something we do and not something we are. We concentrate on the doing, like observing Shabbat. So many people are still in services by rote, and we’re going to lose them over time. Judaism has to compete in the marketplace today.
You’ve spoken in the past about how influenced you were by Chabad’s outreach efforts as a young person traveling around the world for a year.
Yes, I was very moved by Chabad’s desire to welcome people from wherever they are. Obviously we’re different from Chabad, but we like to say we look at ourselves as ‘radically welcoming.’ We welcome all.
How do you reach and inspire today’s generation of young Jews?
I think people are still looking for meaning, so we have to capitalize on that. But a great way to do that is through non-Jewish partners. That might sound counterintuitive but for a lot of young Jews, Judaism is almost like having brown hair or being five-foot-four. It’s just part of who they are. But a non-Jewish partner can bring real meaning and connection, so we have to be fully welcoming to interfaith families.
We have to meet people where they are. A lot of people come to Sixth & I for book talks and other events, but it’s the first time that they have really felt comfortable in a synagogue setting. That’s so important.
What do you say to congregants and others experiencing so much pain and anxiety right now due to the pandemic?
It is a terrible time, and anxiety is going through the roof. I sometimes envy my Christian colleagues and others who just say that God is in control and to give it all over to God right now.
But what I talk about, of course, is resilience and what community is for. We can reach out to each other and say, ‘This is going to be over one day and we will get through this.’
There is going to be a new normal, but what will it look like? We have to start building it now, with matters like racism in our society. What can we do now? We know we have to move forward and can’t go back. So we can get to work now. That’s a good way to deal with the situation.
For information about the Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Symposium, visit associated.org/event/shoshana-s-cardin-leadership-symposium/.